Chicago Nate Silver quit his $55,000-a-year financial consulting job in April to play poker.
So far it's been a wise career move: The 26-year-old Silver expects to make more than $100,000 this year playing the card game, mainly on the Internet.
Silver belongs to a new generation of poker players who feast on the growing number of novices taking up poker after watching televised contests.
While few players go to the extreme of quitting their jobs, many spend their evenings stalking sites like PartyPoker.com and PokerStars.com, pocketing an extra $20,000 or $30,000 annually on top of their regular salaries.
And as more novices keep appearing, opportunity grows for experienced players.
"You'll see people make terrible plays routinely," said Silver, who lives in Chicago. "For the most part these people call too much and play too aggressively."
Online poker has exploded along with the recent surge of interest in the game.
In January 2003, players wagered $11.1 million on the major poker sites. That number rocketed to $136.1 million last month, according to PokerPulse.com, which tracks activity on 21 of the largest poker sites.
Total gambling at poker sites easily will clear $1 billion this year, based on PokerPulse's figures, which likely undercount total betting since they do not include popular online poker tournaments that charge entry fees.
People trying to bank quick online profits are reminiscent of another recent Internet phenomena: day traders.
But instead of making rapid-fire stock trades online, these gamblers seek profits by leveraging small advantages with their poker experience, discipline and statistical savvy. While their gains and losses vary widely day to day, experienced players say the odds are heavily in their favor in the long run.
Still, the easy money could disappear quickly if the current poker fad fades.
'I couldn't go back'
Mike Kim, another Chicago resident, said he played online poker every day -- sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for 12 hours straight -- and raked in average winnings of $15,000 a month.
"I had no idea it would become my full-time job," said Kim, who started playing online nearly a year ago while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois. "I didn't find a job when I graduated, so I just kept playing for money."
The 23-year-old Kim no longer is looking for a job, although his family is concerned he will lose money.
"At first they didn't like it because they thought I was gambling," Kim said. "When I told them how much money I made, they kind of understood I couldn't go back to a regular job."
Neal Salmen, a 28-year-old Chicago real estate investor who said he has made about $25,000 this year playing online poker, noted the anonymity of Internet games often made new players more aggressive. In casinos, Salmen said, "You don't want to look too stupid, so people play more conservatively."
Internet poker offers experienced players some advantages, particularly the ability to play at multiple tables at the same time. Online games generally go faster than casino games, and by playing three or four tables simultaneously, players easily can participate in more than 200 hands an hour.
The main disadvantage of Internet play for poker pros is the inability to "read" competitors -- noticing small ticks and other mannerisms that can reveal if somebody is holding a strong hand or bluffing.
Even at in-person games, pros often have more trouble reading the novices.
"It's hard to read someone if they don't know if they have a good hand," said Jim Karamanis, a Chicago attorney who plays online and in-person poker recreationally.
TV raises ante
Nobody tracks how many people play poker for a living, but the number appears to be growing.
"Certainly at this point there are thousands," said Greg Raymer, who left his job as a patent attorney at Pfizer Inc. after winning $5 million this year at poker's biggest event, the World Series of Poker.
The lure of Internet poker has intensified with the success of Raymer and Chris Moneymaker, who won the 2003 World Series of Poker. Both men won online tournaments to gain entry to the marquee casino events, which were shown on ESPN.
To prosper at Internet poker, players must be technically strong and able to assess quickly the thousands of scenarios that arise -- betting aggressively on strong hands and folding when they're in a weak position.
Signing on to EmpirePoker.com one Tuesday afternoon, Silver put $1,000 into his account and folded most hands before the first round of betting, losing his $15 ante. On the first hand he played, Silver lost $170.
"If I lose $170 on a hand, it's nothing," Silver said. "You can't let it get to you."
Silver usually plays weekday evenings and sometimes stays up until sunrise so that he can play against aggressive Scandinavian players.
"My sleep schedule has been terrible recently," said Silver, who also does work for Baseball Prospectus, which provides statistical analyses of baseball games.
Silver said that he had done much better financially with online poker than he had expected, but that he and other players acknowledge that their profitable poker days might not be long-lived.
Kim, for one, hopes to stand pat.
"I'm just trying to ride it out," he said. "If poker starts dying down, I'm going to have to get a real job."